The Magazine

China Doll

Madame Chiang and her times.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

After returning to her family in Shanghai, Mayling also embarked on the search for a suitable mate. "The profession of marriage is the one most important profession for every woman," Mayling wrote, "and one not to be subordinated by any other profession or inspiration." By 1926, she was being courted by Chiang Kai-Shek, a protégé of Sun's, who had recently gained control of Sun's Nationalist (Kuomintang) party and begun referring to himself as Generalissimo. As a youth, Chiang was "emotionally unstable," Li notes, and as an adult continued to display a "fiery temper." He also seemed unconcerned about the propriety of courting Mayling while still married to his second wife, Jennie Chen, whom he hustled off to San Francisco and later claimed was merely one of his recently released concubines.

Mayling and Chiang were married in 1927. In a preview of the promotional skills for which Mayling would soon become well known, she arranged for a film of the wedding to be made and shown in theaters across China. When news of the marriage reached Jennie Chen in New York City, she tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide by hurling herself into the Hudson River.

It is telling that Mayling described marriage as a profession: She viewed her own as one, and she found in Chiang's vision for China an outlet for her own energies. "Here was my opportunity," she wrote. "With my husband, I would work ceaselessly to make China strong." Like many consorts of powerful men, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek ascended through a combination of family money and connections; shrewd and uncompromising personal judgment; and an ongoing ability to influence and control her husband (whom she converted to Christianity not long after their marriage). In public the generalissimo was a parody of uxoriousness; in private, relations between the couple were often prickly. Some historians have speculated that their childless union was also largely platonic.

By the 1930s, Chiang's Kuomintang party was in power but faced escalating challenges to its authority from a growing Communist movement and an aggressive Japan, as well as a barrage of criticism from Ching Ling about the rampant corruption and misguided rule of the Nationalists. Madame's solution, announced in 1934, was the New Life Movement, which Li describes as "a curious East-West ideological fusion of neo-Confucian precepts, thinly disguised New Testament Christianity, YMCA-style social activism, elements of Bushido--the samurai code--and European fascism, along with a generous dose of New England Puritanism." Not surprisingly, the New Life Movement was not a rousing success with the Chinese people, who were displeased to learn that mah-jongg, opium smoking, dancing, and public displays of affection were now forbidden. Li judges the movement a "paternalistic state-sponsored cult" that attempted to "shame [the Chinese people] into modernity," which seems like a fair assessment.

Mayling's presence on the international stage, and her popularity in America, increased significantly in the 1940s, thanks in large part to the puffery of writers like Clare Boothe Luce, who called Madame the "greatest living woman" in an issue of Time in 1942. In 1943, during a lengthy trip to the United States, Mayling became the first Asian (and the second woman) to address Congress. With her usual flair for dramatic presentation, she toddled into the Senate in four-inch high heels, wearing a black Chinese dress lined in red and a sequined turban, which she doffed with a dazzling smile at the beginning of her speech. "Grizzled congressmen were putty in her hands," writes Li.

Others were not so charmed. Winston Churchill deemed the Chiangs "mischievous and ignorant" when they attempted to meddle in colonial affairs in India. And Franklin Roosevelt lost patience with Madame's indefatigable efforts to gain American aid for China's battle with Japan. During one of Mayling's visits to the United States, an American newspaper ran an editorial cartoon that depicted a sultry and aggressive little Madame vamping Uncle Sam, who was desperately trying to guard a large safe.

"Little Sister," as Madame was often called, also had a libidinous side. In 1942, FDR sent his 1940 presidential opponent Wendell Willkie on a goodwill tour with stops in Asia. After meeting Madame Chiang, Willkie declared she was the "most charming woman [he] ever met." The feeling was evidently mutual; Willkie later boasted to friends about his "amorous conquest" of Madame Chiang. Madame's romantic feelings about Willkie were hardly girlish, however: She told a confidant that if Willkie were ever elected president, "then he and I would rule the world. I would rule the Orient and Wendell would rule the Western world."